Anatomical Museum

William Hare

Serial killer who avoided conviction by giving evidence against William Burke in 1829

William Hare mask

William Hare, like William Burke, was an Irish navvy (a manual labourer) who had come across to Scotland to work on the Union Canal in the 1820s. Born near Newry, Ireland he was described as being uncouth, illiterate and quarrelsome, altogether a thoroughly unpleasant person by all accounts.

When his employment on the Union Canal ceased, Hare moved into Edinburgh and took up residence in a lodging house in Tanner's Close, an overcrowded area of the town between King Stables Road, the Grassmarket and West Port. Whilst in the lodging house he took a fancy to the wife of the owner of the lodging house, Margaret Laird, which resulted in him being thrown out of the house. However, when the owner died shortly aftrewards he moved back in and took over the running of the lodging house. It was at this time that William Burke, with his common law wife Helen MacDougall.

Shortly after Burke had moved in, an old soldier named Donald, died owing Hare rent money. Being aware of the demand for bodies by anatomists in Edinburgh at the time, he decided to get the money he was owed by selling Donald's body. It was readily received by Dr Robert Knox who is reputed to have said that he would be happy to see Burke and Hare 'under like circumstances in the future'! Thereafter rather than wait until their lodgers died of natural causes, they started to murder them.

When they were finally caught (through carelessness) and arrested, there was insufficient evidence to secure a conviction. Subsequently Hare gave evidence against his fellow murderer Burke which resulted in Burke being found guilty and  hanged in the Lawnmarket on 28th January 1829.

What happened to Hare thereafter is unclear. Some believe that he made his way to London where he was thrown into a lime pit and blinded as a result. He was then said to have spent the rest of his life as a blind beggar on the streets of London. What evidence does exist of his departure from Edinburgh points however to him heading towards Dumfries after which he was believed to have returned to Ireland.